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A Siren Call

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Honoria glanced back only once as she walked towards the house. She caught a brief glimpse of the two boys slipping out the gate like ragged shadows. Turning her eye, she pretended to be charmed by the frost-coated ivy clinging to the wall of the old tower. She had a fondness for the architectural oddity. When she had first moved to Calleva, leaving the dusty farm behind her, the tower roof had leaked and a colony of sparrows had claimed one corner for their own. The sparrows had been driven out and the roof repaired, and Honoria had taken to entertaining friends in the sunny chamber, always with one eye on the window that afforded a view of the road and its comings and goings.

Volumnia set upon her at once when she entered the house, but Honoria motioned for her to be silent. “One of my hair bodkins has come loose,” she said. “Come attend to it in my chamber, Volumnia.”

“And what is the matter with Flavius?” Volumnia asked as soon as they were away from the curious ears of the other slaves. “My poor, dear lamb. Why he looked as though he had not eaten in weeks!”

“Flavius—and my great-nephew Justin—have found themselves a bit of intrigue.” Honoria opened her jewelry box, picking a pair of plain silver bracelets to replace the ones she had given away. “I must admit that I was surprised to find that one of Flavia’s grandchildren had returned to Britain, for I doubt she had one good thing to say about it. Always ready to flaunt tradition, she was, the soil that had bred and sustained her ancestors not to her liking.” Honoria sniffed. “It about broke our mother’s heart when she went running off to Nicaea with that legionary of hers. He had never risen above the rank of cohort centurion, as I recall, and had only a pittance.”

“Just so, my lady. But Flavius—surely he must be in great danger! Perhaps we might speak to the praetor—”

“That is the last thing we should do,” Honoria said sharply. “Do not trouble yourself about those boys. They have enough wits between the two of them. They mean to seek out Caesar Constantius and if—when—they return, they will be safe enough in the midst of an army.”

Volumnia fluttered about a while longer but at last calmed and went to oversee young Decia at her spinning.

Honoria went up to the tower. It was not as pleasant a place in winter, with a grey sky and a fierce wind. But Flavius and Justin’s visit had made her recollect the events of another winter, over twelve years ago now. Flavius had yet been a child, on that day when Claudia, wife of Appius Minius Culleo, procurator of Calleva, had come to visit her. They had sat in the tower, just so, Honoria resting her elbow against the window sill, while Claudia leaned forward, painted brows drawn together, saying anxiously…

*

“But you must speak to him, Honoria. You must. You know he does not listen to me.”

“That fool husband of yours does not listen to anyone when he is in one of his moods,” Honoria replied. “If Jupiter himself came down to have a word, Minius would still turn a deaf ear.”

Claudia licked her lips, drawing her woolen mantle closer about her. It was a rare sunny day for midwinter, but a chill lingered in the tower room. Claudia had insisted upon privacy, though, and so Honoria had led the way to the tower and banished Volumnia to the kitchens.

Claudia’s voice sank into a whisper. “But this is treason! If he should be found out—”

“Yet the rewards will be substantial, should Legatus Titus Vetus succeed in a revolt against Rome. Vetus would bestow many honors upon those who stood by him.”

“You cannot truly think that Vetus has a chance of succeeding.” Claudia made a sharp motion with her hand, bracelets jangling. “The Gallic Empire went to its death with Tetricus seven years ago. Rome will dispatch Vetus and any who helped him.”

Honoria had to agree with her, much as she would have liked to have seen their legatus spit in the pompous eye of Emperor Probus. The only British blood running through Vetus’s veins came from a distant aunt on his mother’s side, but as governor he had at least respected their province. “We do not even know if Vetus intends a revolt. These are only rumors that Minius has heard.”

“But if it should prove true! Have I not always interceded with Minius on your own account? The contract to supply grain for the post here, the agreement that allowed your family to pay their taxes late with no penalty in the year of the bad drought—all of those you would not have gotten without me.”

“I do not forget it. And I shall speak to him,” Honoria conceded. “I will also do what I can in Aquae Sulis to seek the favor of the latest crop of tribuni and legati sent from Rome. It would be well to have such a one as that on our side, should things go poorly. I leave at the end of next week, you know.”

*

She did indeed speak to Minius, who laughed and patted her hand. “Tell Claudia she need not concern herself with these matters. And do not pretend that you would not like to see the standard of the Gallic Empire raised once again.”

Honoria withdrew her hand and gave him a severe look. “Wanting is not the same as doing. Particularly when the doing can lead to one’s death. The Aquila family has a proud heritage of British and Roman blood, as many of our families do. Certainly I should like to see the fortunes of our land raised and suitable honor accorded to us—honor that cannot come when one is treated as the backwater of the empire, a dull and barbarous place that must accept the dregs of the senate chambers and barracks. But Titus Vetus does not strike me as the man to raise those fortunes.”

"And I say you are wrong. Vetus has a sound head and enough ambition for the task.”

“He is no Postumus to command the loyalty of the legions.”

Minius smiled, a touch condescendingly. “I do not dismiss these concerns out of hand, Honoria. But this is an opportunity for our family. I am procurator of Calleva, but there are higher ranks to be held. Surely Claudia must see that.”

"She sees that you are behaving like a fool," Honoria told him, but she did not continue to press the matter, recognizing that it was futile to try to get Minius to change his mind. She could only try to minimize the damage.

*

Had Honoria been able to manage it, she would have lived in Aquae Sulis year round. The society, the delights of the baths, the dinners and theatre—although the Aquila family did not have any standing, she had become quite adept at finagling invitations to various gatherings where the wealthy and powerful mingled.

As soon as the baggage had been taken into the small house she rented, and Volumnia set to unpacking her clothes and jewelry, Honoria betook herself to Cordaella’s. The wife of a local merchant, Cordaella always knew the latest gossip and happenings.

“My dear!” she exclaimed upon seeing Honoria. “You will never guess who arrived three days ago. The new legatus iuridicus and his wife.”

The wife of the judicial legate. Now there would be a powerful friend to have on one’s side. Someone who might be able to intercede on Minius’s behalf, should his ambition prove his undoing.

“Do tell,” she said, accepting a cup of wine and noting Cordaella’s hairstyle—an attractive wreath of curls around her forehead with braids gathered into a bun against her neck. She must get Volumnia to copy it.

“She has frequented the baths each day,” Cordaella continued. “I have heard that she suffered a difficult childbirth and seeks Sulis-Minerva’s aid in her recovery.”

“And what of her likes and dislikes? Is she an attractive woman?”

“Not particularly. She is too thin—not that a slim figure is always a bad thing,” Cordaella added hastily, for Honoria herself had always been angular. “But her looks are rather plain. Still, her father is quite wealthy. She comes from Rome, of course.”

“Of course. And no doubt finds our ways terribly uncouth.”

Cordaella giggled. “Do not sound so disparaging, Honoria. Not everyone from Rome is as unbearable as you seem to think.”

Honoria kept silent. She still remembered quite clearly the day that a Roman tribunus and his entourage had ridden past their farm. She had only been eight years old at the time, clinging tightly to the branches of the oak up above the road. She could recall his disparaging words clearly enough, though. “Dear me, do you suppose they keep the sheep in the house with them? Or am I mistaking a villa for a barn?” he had said, and the others had laughed.

She had not given a tuft of wool for Rome ever since.

“What time does Livia usually frequent the baths?” Honoria asked.

“Oh, she usually goes in the morning, not much before ten, I should say.”

*

Volumnia twirled the calamistrum in Honoria’s hair. “You will look quite beautiful in your new saffron mantle, my lady,” she said.

Honoria dabbed some green shadow on her eyelids, then patted some more powder on her face. When had those wrinkles appeared around her mouth? And when had her hair become so gray?

She remembered her mother saying, “What a pity it is that you do not like men,” as she twisted Honoria’s glossy brown locks into a braid one spring evening long ago.

Honoria had never thought it a pity. Her beauty pleased herself and the gods—what more did one need? Certainly not some toady of a husband to simper over her good looks. She put on a touch more powder. Claudia would say her eye shadow was too bright a color for someone her age, but Honoria preferred the vibrant green of the malachite over the more sedate shade achieved with date stones.

The baths were quiet at that hour of the morning. Honoria went first to the temple of Sulis-Minerva and made her offering at one of the altars scattered about the courtyard. She prayed for the good health of her family (although Uncle Lucius would be doing everyone a favor if he managed to die within the next moon) and asked Sulis-Minerva to bless her endeavors that day. Then she proceeded to the west wing of the baths and collared the first attendant she spotted.

“Livia, wife of the judicial legate?” she asked, pressing a coin into the woman’s hand.

“In the West Baths,” the woman replied.

Honoria spotted Livia immediately upon entering the heated pool. No one else currently in Aquae Sulis possessed the rank to justify that many slaves fawning over her. Honoria studied her covertly while she undressed and sank into the warm waters. Volumnia splashed in after her, murmuring that the steam would undo all her careful work with Honoria’s hair. Honoria hushed her impatiently.

Livia was older than she would have guessed—probably in her early forties. No wonder the birth had been so difficult. She reminded Honoria in some respects of her sister, Flavia. Livia had that same tired cast to the brow, the weary way she held her shoulders, and a weak mouth and chin. But looks could be deceiving. Look at Flavia’s insistence on marrying that plain-looking centurion and leaving for Nicaea. Nicaea of all places! No Aquila worth their blood would think of leaving Britain.

Slowly, Honoria drifted closer to Livia. It would be easy enough to approach her with some sort of flattery, a compliment about her fine skin or a prayer for her new child. But Honoria had always disdained such stratagems. For one, she did not think that Livia’s skin was particularly fine, nor did she particularly care about the child. She could lie when occasion required it, but she did not like to make a habit of it.

So instead she said, “I suppose you must find the winter here exceedingly dull and cold. Or so I guess, judging by the way your shoulders slump and your mouth scowls.”

The slave women goggled at her, and Livia’s head snapped up. She glared at Honoria. “Do you know who I am, woman?” she demanded.

“I do.” Honoria relaxed against the side of the pool, shutting her eyes. “You are a soft Roman with no business being here in the North.”

“You know nothing of what I am fit for.” Honoria could hear the outrage painted across Livia’s face. “You have probably never traveled more than five miles from whatever hovel you call a home. I am the wife of the legatus iuridicus, and my father sits in the Senate.”

Honoria opened her eyes and leveled a stare at her. “At least there is some fire in you.” She tilted her head, considering. “Still, I cannot respect a woman who measures her worth by that of the men in her life. If I had done so, I would have ended up milking a cow in the Down Country or tending a legionary’s brat.”

Livia sputtered and splashed her hand into the water. “I do not do so. I only mention them as proof that I stand at the highest ranks of society.”

Honoria hummed, unconvinced.

“Could my husband have born seven children as I have done? Could my father have performed the sacred rites of Isis?”

“Now you begin to speak sense.” Honoria allowed a small smile to curve her mouth. “Perhaps you will not be such an ill fit for our land as I first thought.”

Livia raised her chin proudly and gave Honoria a smile in return—a not-entirely-friendly smile, true, but better than the mealy look she had worn earlier. It had been just this way with Flavia. Coddle her and the girl was like a lump of sodden wool. But imply that she could not do something, and she would suddenly grow a backbone. That had been their mother’s great mistake, to say that Flavia could not marry that centurion. No other man would do for her after that.

“What do they call you?” Livia demanded, and Honoria gave her name.

“My family is settled near to Calleva, but I often winter in Aquae Sulis. My bones ache when the rains come, I find, but the waters help.”

“They are wonderful,” Livia admitted. “I am proud of the children I have borne, but I pray to Sulis-Minerva that I never have another. I still suffer greatly from the birth of my youngest and came to the waters in hope of a cure.”

“May the goddess grant you good health,” Honoria said. “Although your change will be upon you soon, I should think. You will endure many moons of wretched fevers and your temper will be as twitchy as a rabbit, but you will not have to fear getting with child. At least that is how it was for me. Volumnia here can attest to it as well, although she seemed less likely to throttle unwanted guests when they happened to stop by on a day when we were out of sorts.”

Livia laughed. “I imagine you must hold the entire neighborhood in awe. But come, I grow too warm. Will you move to the sauna with me? I wish to know more about the life of British women, and I am curious enough to forgive your tongue its sharpness.”

*

As the following weeks passed, Honoria found herself in Livia’s company with encouraging frequency. Although Livia was never particularly warm and affectionate, she seemed to find Honoria’s honesty and blunt attitude refreshing. And so when Honoria broached the topic of Titus Vetus and the rumors of rebellion, Livia merely raised her eyebrows, the side of her mouth arching into a grudging smile.

“You do have the nerve, Honoria, to speak about such things in my presence. Most would not want to draw the attention of the wife of the legatus iuridicus. It might give people ideas.”

“I won’t pussyfoot around the issue,” Honoria retorted. “I have heard the rumors and wish to know if you believed them.”

Livia swirled her finger into the bowl of honey that she had been dipping dried plums into and sucked it clean before replying. “My husband believes them to be true. He has been in close counsel with all the centurions who command local garrisons, ensuring their loyalty for when Vetus makes his move.”

“Then Vetus is the fool I took him for—imagining he can get anywhere without the support of the legions.”

Livia shrugged. “There are rumors of foreign mercenaries.”

Honoria stiffened in outrage. “How dare he presume to bring hired thugs onto our shores—scoundrels who will pillage our towns if given the least chance.”

“I should send you to my husband,” Livia said, chuckling. “Loosing your tongue on Vetus might bring him to his senses.” She held out the bowl of plums to Honoria. “Do you care for more?”

That evening, Honoria wrote to Claudia, relaying Livia’s information and begging her to bring it to Minius’s attention. A fortnight later she received the reply.

“Bad news, my lady?” Volumnia asked, eyeing the crumpled message in Honoria’s lap.

“I love Claudia, but she has no head for delicate matters,” Honoria replied. “Instead of approaching Minius calmly and presenting him with the facts, she had hysterics, falling to her knees and begging him to withdraw his support from Vetus. Of course Minius dismissed her—and me—as silly women with no business getting involved in politics.”

Volumnia snorted. “He will sing a different tune when the auxiliaries come to arrest him.”

“And then Claudia and her children will lose everything.” Honoria shook her head. “I can only hope that my friendship with Livia may prove fruitful.”

To aid in that regard, Honoria introduced Livia to a woman that Cordaella knew who had great skill with herbs. She concocted a tonic that eased some of the lines of pain around Livia’s mouth.

“I know you seek to curry favor with me,” Livia said when next they met, “but I am grateful, all the same.”

Honoria did not try to deny it, but she did add, “It is also due to my respect for you and a genuine wish for your health to return.” That was true as well, and it surprised her, that she should have grown (moderately) fond of a Roman woman.

“Thank you.” Livia inclined her head in a graceful nod. “You are too brusque for me to term our friendship ‘pleasant,’” she continued, startling a laugh out of Honoria, “but I find myself with an affection for you nonetheless.”

*

Honoria hated to leave Aquae Sulis but when the blackthorn blossomed she returned to Calleva. Her homecoming was made happier by the fact that her nephew’s wife, Locinna, and her son, Flavius, were there for a visit. Flavius was nine years old and bursting with energy. He seemed to be everywhere at once, red hair mussed and his tunic dirty, despite his mother’s admonishments to be careful.

Whenever Locinna went to the forum, though, Honoria and Volumnia were quite shameless in their indulgence of him. They pretended to be maidens locked in the tower, and Flavius conducted a daring rescue, despite the fearsome beast guarding the door. (Later, Honoria gave Bel, their wolfhound and the temporary beast, a bone for his troubles and for enduring Flavius’s shouts and wild swinging of a stick). Then Volumnia baked Flavius enough pastry-men to make up an entire cohort, and they did not tell his mother about his adventure in the pond by the South Wall.

Every night before Flavius went to bed, Honoria would tell him stories about his father, and his father before him, and the one before that—all the rich history of the Aquilas. “One day you will wear the dolphin ring,” she told him, “and you must uphold the tradition of courage and honor that has been a hallmark of our family.”

Flavius nodded solemnly, his eyes big and shining in the candlelight.

Honoria was sorry to see them return to the farm after a few weeks, despite Flavius’s penchant for climbing the rickety apple tree in the garden to “keep a lookout for Saxons” and scaring the household to death whenever a strong wind blew.

The evening after they left, Claudia came to visit. She looked tired and thinner, though she smiled warmly. “I did not wish to intrude when your family was here,” she said, taking Honoria’s hands in her own. “They are well, I trust?”

“Yes, although my nephew got called unexpectedly to Segontium. Lucinna had thought to have the entire summer with him, and Flavius was disappointed, too.”

“I have always been thankful that neither of my sons desire military service—despite its being a very honorable profession,” she added, knowing that Honoria would leap to the defense of every Aquila who had chosen the Eagles over a more settled life.

Once they were seated and the wine poured, Honoria spoke again. “You do not look well, Claudia. I take it Minius is still acting the fool?”

Tears welled in Claudia’s eyes. “Yes. He was called to visit the governor last week. And he was so proud when he returned, saying that Vetus had promised him great things in return for his loyalty and for looking the other way when certain messages were brought through the town and for housing certain people.”

“You mean you have had traitors under your roof?” Honoria exclaimed, appalled.

Claudia nodded. “Odious men, and I have had to grit my teeth and be civil. There will be no hiding Minius’s involvement in the plot.”

“This is ill news, indeed. But you must take heart in the fact that I have found the favor of Livia, wife of the legatus iuridicus.”

“Thank you, my friend.” Claudia reached over and squeezed her hand. “Even if—” her voice caught and she had to gather herself before continuing—“even if nothing can be done, I appreciate your help.”

*

The rebellion, such as it was, happened on a late June day. The first Honoria was aware of it was the auxiliaries marching into town and occupying the forum. The next day, word came of fighting at Londinium, and wild rumors of Saxons flared and died by the hour. And then the legatus iuridicus, with all of Britain’s legions standing firm behind him, ended the rebellion, like a man flicking a bothersome fly off his shoulder—casually and with little effort. Vetus was taken and killed before anyone got ideas about taking him to Rome for a far-too-public trial. And then the mopping up began, the unpleasant process of rooting out all of Vetus’s supporters.

Claudia sent word two days later that Minius had been arrested. She and her children were under lock and key in the villa, confined until Minius’s fate had been decided.

“Bring me parchment and a quill, Volumnia,” Honoria requested and took herself up to the tower.

She did not try to cloak the request in flowery compliments but put it as straightforwardly as she could, explaining the situation and asking if Livia could intercede with her husband.

I know that asking for Minius to be restored to his station as procurator would be asking too much. But I beg for leniency for the sake of his wife and children. His wife, Claudia, has been my good friend these many years, and I would not see her widowed and penniless, or worse, implicated in her husband’s treason. You would have my gratitude were you to persuade your husband to show mercy in this case.

When it was done, she called for Volumnia again. “Will you take this to Londinium for me? The legatus iuridicus and his family are there, by last report. I cannot trust it to a messenger. I know the roads may be dangerous so soon after the unrest, but—”

“I can manage that, my lady,” Volumnia assured her. “Let me take Rufus and a stout stick and I will have nothing to fear.”

The days that followed were anxious ones. Honoria tried to get in to see Claudia, but the guards refused her entry. The prison where Minius was being held was equally impenetrable. She heard from a merchant that the procurator of Corinium had been executed, and that afternoon she went to the temple of Minerva to pour a libation and pray that Volumnia moved faster than the grinding but merciless wheels of bureaucracy.

Volumnia returned late one night almost a week later. Livia’s reply was short:

Only because I know you would never become friends with a woman undeserving of it. Show the enclosed to the guards. The traitor and his family must be on the next boat to Gaul.

Exile, then. Well, it was better than death, though she would miss Claudia very much.

*

An old auxiliary who had served under her brother now owned a boat down in Dubris, plying the waters between Britain and his homeland in the Frisian Islands. It was easy enough to arrange the passage and several days later, they gathered on the docks in the fog and cold of early morning. Honoria was there with Volumnia, who had baked a good supply of bread for Claudia to take with her. Minius—a shaken, penitent version of his former self—and the children were already aboard. Only Claudia had paused, looking wistfully back at the road that led to Calleva and the tiled roofs under which she had been born and married and led her life.

“You could leave him,” Honoria said abruptly. “No one would hound you with Minius out of the way.”

But Claudia shook her head. “I could not. I do love him, you know, and how should I provide for our children? I will not rely on the charity of friends,” she added.

Honoria nodded. “Then you must put Britain out of your mind and keep your thoughts on the road ahead.”

“Yes.” Claudia wiped away her tears and pulled Honoria into an embrace. “I will never forget you, though. I will send word, once we are settled.”

Honoria hugged her back, holding tightly, and willing her own eyes to stay dry.

Volumnia moved to stand beside her as the ship moved out into the harbor, the rising sun cutting through the fog. “Had it been you, I think you would have chosen the land over the husband,” Volumnia commented.

“That goes without saying,” Honoria replied crisply, tucking her mantle closer about her neck. They waited until the ship faded from view before turning and walking slowly up the harbor steps.

*

Blinking, Honoria came back to the present. It was getting late and she had been sitting idly by, ruminating on old memories.

Minius had managed to find an administrative position in some town with an uncouth name along the Sequana river, and last she had heard from Claudia, they were doing well, although Claudia wrote that not a week went by that she did not miss Calleva still.

Moving over to stand by the window, Honoria looked down into the garden where Flavius and Justin had been. They might leave for a season, but they would be back. Justin had already felt the pull, finding his way here from Nicaea. The Aquila blood had been bound to this land a long time ago, and it sang to them, a siren call echoing over the turning years.